Originally published in 1937, And China Has Hands, the final published novel of literary gadfly and political radical H.T. Tsiang (author of The Hanging on Union Square), takes place in a 1930s New York defined as much by chance encounters as by economic inequalities and corruption. Tsiang shows us the world of 1930s New York through the eyes of Wan-Lee Wong, a newly arrived, nearly penniless, Chinese immigrant everyman who falls in love with Pearl Chang, a biracial Chinese and African American woman who wanders into his life.
And China Has Hands editor and Tsiang scholar Floyd Cheung writes in his Afterword: “H. T. Tsiang, like his characters, sometimes seems like a man living at the wrong historical moment. He wrote about the double-consciousness of the Asian-American experience before the category of Asian-American was invented. He depicted a half-Black, half-Chinese character before the rise of multiracial consciousness or mixed-race studies. He performed the role of a trickster critic during a time when audiences wanted a native informant. He railed against Chiang Kai-Shek at the very moment that Chiang was being named Time Magazine’s “person of the year.” In addition, he endured Chinese exclusion, the Great Depression, World War II, and the McCarthy era. In short, Tsiang sailed against the wind and tides during his time in the U.S.”
Pearl Chang must be the angel, Wong Wan-Lee thought, whom he had met in his dream the first night after he had moved into his laundry.
Wong Wan-Lee had hoped that Pearl Chang would come to his laundry, but on second thought, he was glad Pearl Chang had not come, for how could he receive a friend like her in his humble laundry.
“See you again!” was the promise she had made and certainly she would come, Wong Wan-Lee thought.
What could he do now?
He’d keep his laundry nice and clean so he would be proud to show it to any of his friends!
Before he started to work, he swept the place and cleaned the walls with a wet towel. He then washed the window-panes inside and out.
He proceeded to decorate the outer room, which was his office, workshop and library.
In the center of the wall he hung a galloping horse painted by Chao Sung-Shua. It was a reproduction, but he thought he had a horse anyhow.
He chose this painting because he liked the idea of galloping. He would certainly, some day, learn aviation, and then he would gallop with wings.
Along both sides of the painting he hung two scrolls.
On each scroll there was a wise Chinese saying. One said: “He who is quiet may sense the genuine ﬂavor of things.” The other said: “He who can eat the bitterness of the bitter may put himself above others.”
With the spirit of the painting and the writing put together he could acquire the secrets of the uni- verse! The spirit of the horse was positive—Yang, male—and the spirit of the scrolls was passive—Yin, female. According to The Book of Chang, the com- bination of “Yin”, female, and “Yang”, male, becomes “Tao”—the Truth—the Way.
He bought a folding table, a few chairs, a sofa, a bunch of ﬂowers and a new set of tea-cups.
He also bought various kinds of Chinese sweets: almond cakes, rice cakes, peanut candy, Lee Chee nuts, preserved mixed fruits, golden limes and ginger syrup.
Wong Wan-Lee was working in his laundry. While he was working, he was thinking of Pearl Chang.
One day, a lady came in while he was in the back room.
“Hello, where are you?” Wong Wan-Lee heard the words.
It was a woman’s voice and it sounded like Pearl Chang’s.
It must be!
“Just a minute,” he answered from inside.
He took off his straw slippers and put on his ten dollar leather shoes.
He faced the mirror to put on his tie.
Then he combed his hair with plenty of oil. “I am coming,” he yelled.
Wetting a towel with hot water, he moistened his chin, soaped it a bit and shaved.
He was in such a hurry that he forgot to put in the blade and he couldn’t shave.
Then, having put in the blade, he was in such a hurry that he cut his chin; the wound bled freely.
He wiped the blood off his chin and put on powder to cover up the mark.
Then he put on a leather jacket, as if he had just come back from the ﬂying-field.
He faced the mirror again and made sure that he was looking his best.
Ah! Ah! Wong Wan-Lee was going to receive his girl friend, Pearl Chang.
Wong Wan-Lee came out of the bedroom and passed the drying room and lifted up the curtain and then he saw . . . A woman . . .
She was beautiful: The eyes! The lips! The mouth!
But . . .
She was not Pearl Chang. She was nobody!
Wong Wan-Lee suddenly lost his enthusiasm and assuming a commonplace expression, said, “Good morning, madam!”
“Don’t be so dignified! Can’t you remember me?” the lady asked.
“Me no see you before!” Wong Wan-Lee replied. “I guess I’ve made a mistake. Well, anyway, how are you? You know…” the lady said.
“Fine, thanks!” replied Wong Wan-Lee.
“How is business?” the lady asked him. “All right!”
“If business is good, why can’t you have a good time?” inquired the lady.
“I have good business, I have good time! Any- thing to sell?” Wong Wan-Lee asked.
“Sure!” replied the lady.
“Let me see!” Wong Wan-Lee said.
“Be snappy, I’m working for a syndicate and I can’t afford to waste too much time on one customer,” replied the lady.
“No see, no buy!” said Wong Wan-Lee, innocently.
“What? Do you mean . . .” asked the lady. “No can do,” answered Wong Wan-Lee firmly.
“You poor little thing,” said the lady. “You better do it now, or you may get so you can’t do it. It’s a great thing to see God once in a while.”
“Some other time.”
“By and by you may die,” pressed the lady. “No see, no buy!” Wong Wan-Lee repeated,
“Perfume? Picture? Handkerchief?”
“I sell no perfume or pictures. I am the perfume.
I am the picture! I am selling you the tonic.” “Leave your tonic, I pay,” replied Wong Wan-Lee.
“Good Heaven, can’t you understand English?” asked the lady.
“It is hard! It is so different from Chinese,” said Wong Wan-Lee.
“What I’m selling you is the same in any language,” she said. “For heaven’s sake, do you want ‘Diu Hah’?”
Now Wong Wan-Lee knew what she had meant and he answered, “No!” He resumed his ironing.
“I know you may like a Chinese girl, but your native dish is expensive. Five dollars! Me, only one dollar!”
Wong Wan-Lee kept on ironing and made no answer.
“Say, I’m different from any you have met. I’ll give you a real, good service. While I serve you, I’ll smoke no cigarettes, eat no apples and read no papers!”
Wong Wan-Lee made no answer.
“If you give me a dollar, I will give you service and if you give me a tip, I will give you love.”
Wong Wan-Lee made no answer.
“Say, you ain’t scared, are you? Don’t worry about that, either. Our company is fixed up from top to bottom. Oh, the company is rich, Doing a business of twelve million dollars a year. What do you say?”
Wong Wan-Lee made no answer.
“Why don’t you read a tabloid to get yourself educated! Then you wouldn’t be so dumb.” The lady lost hope and went away cursing.
When the door closed, Wong Wan-Lee followed her out softly. He craned his neck to see what she would do. He saw her get into a car with a man at the wheel, waiting down the block. There was also another woman in the back seat and Wong Wan-Lee decided this woman must be her manager.
By acting dumb, he had made sure of saving his dollar.
At a dollar a piece, Wong Wan-Lee thought, the lady would have to work with as many customers as he ironed shirts. It looked as though she had to make a livelihood for three persons, support an automobile, and leave something over for the company.
Pearl Chang didn’t come.
Wong Wan-Lee was working in his laundry. While he was working, he was thinking of Pearl Chang.
One day, an old Chinese who carried a bamboo basket came in.
His head, when he took off his cap, was bald and perspiring.
He put the bamboo basket on the counter and asked Wong Wan-Lee to choose a purchase from it.
He had no teeth and Wong Wan-Lee could hardly hear him. He breathed with difficulty, as though he had walked a long way without stopping.
Wong Wan-Lee lifted the cover and saw vegeta- bles, bean curds and Chinese roast pork.
The vegetables were green and just to look at them made your mouth water.
The bean curds were square in shape and as soft as meat without bones.
The roast pork was red in color, and when you smelled it, you said to yourself: “I must have it.”
Wong Wan-Lee noticed that the old man was very clean; so he bought some things.
The old man seemed very happy that he had made a few cents.
Wong Wan-Lee invited him to come inside the counter and have a cup of tea. The old man did so.
The cup of hot tea made him feel at home and he began to tell Wong Wan-Lee some stories.
He said that as a young boy in China he was told that America was full of gold and one could pick as much as he liked.
He came over.
He had his queue on. Many Americans laughed at him, yet he dared not cut it off, for if he did he would have his head cut off as a revolutionist by The Manchu Emperor when he went back to China.
He had worked in a gold mine and he had worked building a railroad, been a gandy dancer.
He worked hard, but he didn’t save any money. Yes, he did make something, but he didn’t know where all his money went.
He intended to learn English so he could go to school to learn a trade, and then go back to China to make a better living and to marry his fiancée.
Oh, English was so hard and it had no con- nection with Chinese at all. He gave up his hope and he just took to work.
As the years went by, his hair turned from black to gray and from gray to white. And from a white- haired old man he turned to a bald-headed old man. He had cousins and friends who had died in the mines and on the railroad tracks. Poor as he was, he burned incense and paper money for them every Chinese New Year’s eve. But he could not know who would burn incense and paper money for him after his death.
He had known Dr. Sun Yat-Sen when he was in San Francisco. Dr. Sun had slept in his apartment.
At that time no one knew that Dr. Sun Yat-Sen would be the father of the Chinese Republic, and when he had spoken in Chinatown, San Francisco, the Chinese had thrown bricks and rotten apples at him.
As he was over seventy now, the old man continued, he knew he was going to die before very long. But he had no money and knew certainly he would be picked up by the hospital and his body would be cut to pieces, and after it had proven useful, might even be thrown to the pigs.
It was sad for him, he said, but was worse for his fiancée, who had waited and waited and she had waited for nothing.
Of course she was dead now, the old man said.
He was sorry that he had not gone back to China with Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, then, and become a revolution- ist. Had he died as a revolutionist, he would have been remembered as a hero forever.
“Beware, while you are still young!” he warned Wong Wan-Lee. “America is an evil land and once you sink in you can never get out.”
“Beware, while you are still young!” he warned Wong Wan-Lee again. “Don’t let the destiny that was mine be a shadow of your own!”
Wong Wan-Lee had been moved a great deal by the story of this old man. He poured him another cup of tea and he bought almost everything from him.
Pearl Chang didn’t come.
Every night, Pearl Chang had to read the tabloid. Otherwise she could not sleep. When she got the paper she would not let her friend read it because she thought her friend would get the pages mixed up.
Pearl Chang would not read the paper until she had bathed and was ready to sleep.
After she finished her bath she washed her silk stockings.
She bought three pairs of the same color at a time. When one of the heels was cut by the back of the shoe or a run started, she could just throw one stocking away and save the other to be used with a widowed one. When she washed her stockings every night, it was not only to get the dirt off, but also to get the threads shifted around so that the shoes would not cut in the same spot.
While she was bathing and washing, she liked to look at her beautiful legs. They were long and from the middle part of the leg down they narrowed gradually. The ankles were small. That meant delicacy, aristocracy, beauty; there were no hairs and no scars. After she bathed and washed her stockings she came into the bedroom and against three pillows she relaxed in a sitting position and read the tabloid.
It was so easy to handle that she sneered at others who were not wise enough to buy a paper of the same size. Large sheets were always a bother and there were so many words that meant nothing.
There were so many sheets and there were pictures, features, columns and editorials. It cost two cents. She could not understand why a roll of toilet paper with no pictures, no features, no columns and no editorials should cost her five cents.
Pearl Chang read the tabloid. Pearl Chang became a movie star.
Pearl Chang kissed Wong Wan-Lee on the screen. Wong Wan-Lee, the laundryman?
No—Wong Wan-Lee, the Prince.
Where was Wong Wan-Lee?
Pearl Chang had forgotten the address of Wong Wan-Lee nor had she remembered his name. But so strong-willed a girl as she must find this laundryman.
And Pearl Chang did.
She entered the laundry
Wong Wan-Lee stopped ironing and had a look at her; he wondered whether he was awake or in a dream.
He pulled his hair. It hurt. He bit his tongue. It hurt.
He was convinced that he was not in a dream, but awake.
He opened the door of the counter and ushered in Pearl Chang.
Pearl Chang looked at the wall of the outer room and she marvelled at the Chinese painting and thought the Chinese writing was mysterious.
Pearl Chang came to the middle room.
Wong Wan-Lee got out a folding table and served Pearl Chang a cup of tea.
“Thanks!” said Pearl Chang.
Holding the cup she waited for something more. There was nothing more.
“Is this hot enough?” asked Wong Wan-Lee. “Yes, but where is the sugar and milk?” asked Pearl Chang.
“We are drinking tea, not milk-sugar-water,” Wong Wan-Lee answered. “Savages have a dull sense of taste and therefore they have to use sugar and milk, but we are Chinese!”
Pearl Chang listened but did not drink.
“It is so beautiful inside the cup, and if milk were added it would look like muddy water.”
“Please give me some lemon!” pleaded Pearl Chang.
“If lemon were used, it would be like the wolf taking to sheep and there would be no tea-taste left.” The prince must be right, Pearl Chang thought, and she took the drink.
Then she tried the Chinese nuts, preserved fruits and almond cakes. She loved them. All were tasty and curious.
Wong Wan-Lee cooked and they ate.
There was almost everything but Chop Suey and Chow Mein.
Pearl Chang was surprised because the Chinese national dishes had been missing.
“Do you think that I am not good enough to be treated with your national dishes, Chop Suey and Chow Mein?” asked Pearl Chang.
“With thousands and thousands of apologies,” said Wong Wan-Lee, “I am no American. I eat no Chop Suey. I eat no Chow Mein.”
“You see how easily Americans get fooled!” com- mented Pearl Chang. “I am glad I am a Chinese!”
“Be quiet! Don’t say that!” Wong Wan-Lee warned her. “If Americans should hear you say that, we Chinese would have no more business.” He went in the inner room and brought out a newspaper clipping; he handed it to her. It read:
“Prof. Le Roy S. Weatherby and Miss Sheila Murray of the University of Southern California reported at the meeting of the American Chemical Society August 21, 1935, that Chow Mein and Chop Suey, those pseudo-oriental dishes of American origin, got the Society’s scientific O.K. today as a health food.
“Feeding tests on rats showed that Chow Mein and Chop Suey contain the growth-promoting and anti-infection Vitamin A, the appetite-regulating and anti-neurotic Vitamin B and the rickets-preventing Vitamin D.”
Now Americans have graduated from the school of Chop Suey and Chow Mein and are seeking to entertain themselves with genuine Chinese dishes.
Pearl Chang read the clippings several times and finally she told Wong Wan-Lee, “Vitamin A, Vitamin B, Vitamin C, Vitamin D and Vitamin E; that is too much for me!”
They began to eat.
Pearl Chang noticed that there was no fork nor knife and there was no serving plate either. She saw a bowl filled with rice and two pieces of bamboo alongside it.
She could not understand how with two straight pieces of bamboo, any one could pick up his food.
Wong Wan-Lee raised his chopsticks and said to her: “Please! Please!”
Pearl Chang held the chopsticks in the way Wong Wan-Lee did but she could not move them freely.
Wong Wan-Lee deigned to explain, and demonstrated, then let Pearl Chang try.
Finally she learned how to move her fingers. But, holding the chopsticks, she could not hold the food firm and it dropped on the ﬂoor and was snatched by the cat.
Wong Wan-Lee sneered at Pearl Chang and was proud of himself—how well he could handle his chopsticks!
When the dinner was over, they had tea again.
It was quite all right, Pearl Chang felt, to look at each other, converse, drink tea and take sweets for a while. But these things were going on too long; they had become dreadfully monotonous.
She thought of the laundry as a kind of Buddhist temple with bells and drums. But she could not hear the bells and drums.
She could not understand why Wong Wan- Lee seemed to be more interested in the cat than in her. The cat enjoyed a little pat now and then, but why should she sit still and see the cat have a good time while she remained unheeded?
While Wong Wan-Lee was talking to her and not paying any attention to the cat, Pearl Chang noticed that the cat went right ahead and rubbed itself against him. Could she believe that she hadn’t as much guts as the cat?
As she was wearing a new pair of shoes, her feet hurt. She kicked the shoes off and walked around the room. Then she whistled and danced.
Wong Wan-Lee had thought that Pearl Chang was an angel, but now he thought that she was just a “Mo No,” a term which China-born Chinese use to make fun of an American-born Chinese. In Cantonese, “Mo” means “no” and “No” means “brain.”
Wong Wan-Lee thought that his cat had more brains than Pearl Chang.
When the cat lay over his feet every night he thought the cat was doing him a favor by being his hot water bag. He now discovered that the cat had enough brains to use his feet to keep her warm.
When he walked around, the cat ran between his legs to rub her body against his leg; he used to think the cat was doing him a favor by trying to amuse him. Now he had discovered the cat had enough brains to use his ankle as a back-scratcher.
When the cat had touched his foot and run away, he had thought the cat was merely being friendly to him and wanted to tell him that his shrimps were delicious. He now discovered, when the cat did this, that she had enough brains to say to him, “I can catch a mouse, but you cannot catch me!”
On second thought, however, Wong Wan-Lee realized that Pearl Chang had more brains than the cat.
With all the brains the cat had, she didn’t know how to make any other sound besides “meow”; Pearl Chang could make more sounds than that.
With all the brains the cat had, she could only make the center part of her eyes smaller during the day and larger at night, but she could not shift her eyes to the corner and needle your heart. Pearl Chang could.
With all the brains the cat had, she could not open her lips to show her white teeth—smile. Pearl Chang could.
With all the brains the cat had, she did not know how to put the little red stuff on her lips. Pearl Chang could.
With all the brains the cat had, she could not remove her fur coat and let her white skin be seen and yet not be seen through a thin-veiled dress. Pearl Chang could.
With all the brains the cat had, she did not know how to put on high-heeled shoes and let the heels make sharp sounds on the pavement. Pearl Chang could.
The high-heeled shoes made Pearl Chang’s feet small without foot-binding.
The high-heeled shoes made Pearl Chang shake her body from left to right and back to front.
The high-heeled shoes made her two tennis balls jump around her chest, and yet they were there always.